Sugar beet growers in northern Colorado dealt blow by federal judge’s ruling
Sugar beet growers have found themselves between the proverbial hard place and a really big rock.
The rock is a federal judge in San Francisco who has banned the planting of genetically modified sugar beets called Roundup Ready starting in 2011. The hard place might just be the Western Sugar Cooperative, which requires sugar beet farmers to plant a specified amount of sugar beets each year in northeastern Colorado, western Nebraska, northern Wyoming and southeast Montana.
If the ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White sticks, many of those farmers feel it might be cheaper to pay the fine for not growing beets – as Western has done in the past – than planting conventional sugar beet seed. Some growers said that using conventional seed will result in an immediate 15 percent reduction of yield because chemicals used in the past to control weeds no longer work.
When the industry first started in northern Colorado more than 100 years ago, weeds were hand cultivated from fields, which was back-breaking work. Old-timers, particularly those from German families who immigrated to the area from Russia, still tell stories about crawling on hands and knees across a sugar beet field pulling weeds.
Finding those willing to do that type of work anymore is difficult at best and as one farmer put it, “a week later (after hand weeding) you’ve got weeds again.”
Kent Wimmer, spokesman for the cooperative, which is based in Denver, referred all comments to the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.
The council, on its website, said the San Francisco court is considering how the Supreme Court’s recent decision in June that overturned a lower court’s order that prohibited farmers from planting biotech alfalfa. The high court ruled 7-1 to allow the use of that seed while the U.S. Department of Agriculture completes an environmental study.
According to wire reports, White earlier this month decided to impose a ban beginning in 2011, ruling the USDA had approved Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beet seed without adequate environmental study.
That ruling comes despite the use of the seed having been approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the U.S., as well as by regulatory agencies in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S., it was approved for use in 2005 and that came after several years of study while developing the seed.
According to the sugar industry council, Roundup Ready requires fewer herbicide applications to effectively control weeds. Fewer trips across fields result in reduced greenhouse emissions, reduced soil erosion, reduced soil compaction and better water conservation.
Environmentalists who filed the lawsuit, through the Center for Food Safety, which has offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., allege Roundup Ready crops have increased the use of herbicides and herbicide-resistant weeds. How that was determined is not real clear, but the San Francisco judge – surprise, surprise – apparently agreed with that assessment.
The attorney representing the Center for Food Safety was quoted by Reuters as saying the judge’s decision was a “victory for farmers, for the environment and for the public.” Monsanto estimates the decision could cost the company and its customers $2 billion in 2011 and 2012.
The USDA, meanwhile, has valued the sugar beet crop, largely grown in 11 states, at $1.335 billion for 2007-2008. About 95 percent of the sugar beet crop will come from Roundup Ready seed this year in the 11 states that produce them, according to various industry organizations. Most, if not all, Colorado beets planted this year were Roundup Ready.
That means the Center for Food Safety must represent no more than a handful of farmers, all more than likely organic farmers, and they are all probably centered in California, not far from San Francisco.
California does some strange things at times. This is just another example.
Roundup Ready beet seeds are just the latest in improvement of agricultural crops – improvements that have been made for centuries through controlled pollination of plants, which, today, is known as selective breeding or hybridization. Plant biotechnology is an extension of traditional plant breeding, which allows for the precise transfer of characteristics in development of crops with specific beneficial traits. Those traits include weed control, insect protection, higher yield and improved health benefits to consumers.
To meet a growing world population and less ground to grow food, this type of advancement is a necessity.
And the bottom line is that sugar – whether from sugar beets or sugar cane, or from sugar crops grown using conventional, biotech or organic methods – is the same old sugar consumers have been using forever.
That can be backed by scientific research.
Bill Jackson has covered agriculture in northern Colorado for more than 30 years. If you have ideas for this column, call him at (970) 392-4442.